Why Should We Write What We Know?
Why should we write what we know? Simply because it is so easy to get caught out if we are relying on research to cover us. Writers of contemporary fiction can need a huge amount of research if you aren’t writing what you know. If you happen to be a great researcher, well okay, but my advice to is be very careful. The risk of setting a story in a place foreign to you and developing characters whose lifestyle is different from your own, is that you can make glaring errors. A reader who knows the area and/or people may pick up on those errors and subconsciously dismiss you as an authority. You don’t need to be some literary icon to have readers expect perfection in your writing. This perfection doesnt only include your ability to use the written word correctly but also to give believeable value in your setting, characterisation etc.
Italy is the setting for many contemporary romance stories and of all the nationalities our heroes might be, Italians are probably the most numerous. Last year I was fortunate to spend three weeks freewheeling around that beautiful country. Although neither my husband or I spoke any Italian we managed to find our way and got into numerous interesting “conversations” with locals who didn’t speak English. The magic of travelling in other countries. Being a writer, I like to take careful note of everything around me, and this was especially true in Italy, the land of romance, gorgeous heroines and yummy heroes. I was shocked at what I discovered.
There were gorgeous women by the handful in the cities, slim and chic and so utterly beautiful I wanted to spit. It was the men who surprised me. I discovered tall Italian men are a myth. There appears to be no Italian male who is 6ft4in in his stocking feet, despite what the romance books tout. They might still fit the dark and handsome criteria, but tall? Sorry, the Italian male is not tall. Most of them were barely my height (5ft7in). I found myself checking as we walked down streets past men, were they my height or my husbands? We did see a very few who matched my husband’s 6ft but nowhere did anyone tower over him. I was hugely disappointed. But then, height in a man is important to me, being a tad on the tall side myself. But this was not the most surprising thing I discovered in Italy.
During our week in Tuscany we stayed in a village of possibly about 5000 people. We spent the days driving to nearby tourist sites or exploring the countryside and nearby villages. The evenings we sampled the varying restaurants that dotted the area and wandered around the village enjoying gelato. It was wonderful. But within the first couple of days I noticed something odd. Well, it appeared odd to me, anyway. There were no females between ages of about 6 and 60! In the whole week we stayed in Tuscany we never saw any younger women except in their places of work. Grandmotherly women would be around, often with small children, but there was even an absence of girls. In the square during the late afternoon/evening, men were sitting playing chess/talking/smoking, boys were tearing around on bikes and scooters and playing with soccer balls, but no females were in evidence at all. In the restaurants each evening, groups of men were congregating for meals together, but never with a female in sight. In one restaurant I received such strange looks from other customers I began to wonder if there was a “male only” policy in force and the owner decided to overlook it for one night. The couple of bars in the village were well patronised but again, only by men. Even in the supermarket, we never saw a woman younger than about 60 doing her shopping. This didn’t change during the weekend. We couldn’t find anyone (who spoke enough English to understand our question) to ask about this weird set-up until we got to Florence. There, the female hotel receptionist’s response? “Where is this village, I need to go and visit” – so we gather this is not necessarily the norm for all of Italy but it gave me pause for thought. Know what you intend to write about. If you’re going to set a story in rural Tuscany, perhaps you need to visit there yourself. Or at least be aware having your heroine wandering around, or going for evening runs etc is going to cause raised eyebrows at the very least among the locals, and possibly have her tarnished as a less than virtuous lady at the worst.
I stand by “write what we know” as the safest bet. No amount of research on the Internet would have told me that women stayed indoors in rural Tuscany. I know if I read a story set there again, I’m going to be looking to see if the author actually knows this ‘fascinating fact’. Discovering this definitely reinforced my thinking. I’m sticking to writing about my own backyard, New Zealand.
Have you been put off a story by something you know is incorrect? Some setting or characteristic point which you have personal knowledge of? Would you read another of that writer’s stories? Or do you just put it down to the writer’s use of poetic licence and not let it bother you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.